Monday, August 21, 2006

The Dems' message to New Hampshire: what makes you so special, anyway?

As a scribe who has weathered the winter indignities of New Hampshire during the last four presidential primary seasons, I can vouch for the storied charms of the Granite State, and especially its flinty citizens, who take quite seriously their longstanding responsibility of getting up close and personal with the White House hopefuls, right at the starting gate.

It's a fair bet that many of my colleagues feel much the same way about the state's traditional first-in-the-nation status, although admittedly we also have a selfish interest in saying so. New Hampshire is a great place for a journalist working on the ground. Most of the campaigning takes place in the populous southern zone, around cities like Manchester and Concord and Portsmouth, which means that (weather permitting) most events are generally no more than 45 minutes away from each other, and that often translates into plenty of time to file a story and still hit Manchester at a decent hour for a decent dinner.

Maybe this is why columnist Willam Safire, a decade ago, referred to the New Hampshire primary as "a media-saturated joke," and its citizens as "overexposed, overpolled." No matter. We kept coming anyway, because the candidates kept coming. And because it was fun to have impromptu reunions at the Wayfarer Hotel bar.

Neverthleless, it's beyond debate that, demographically speaking, New Hampshire does not reflect the diversity of America. Roughly 0.8 percent of the population is African American, and another 2.1 percent are Hispanic. The state boasts about 1.2 million residents, and that's about the same number who live just in the city of San Diego.

And for Democrats in particular, the state's demographics are truly problematical. It's not just the low percentage of blacks and Hispanics. It's also the fact that traditional blue-collar and working-class voters are becoming more scarce in a state that has been trending toward white-collar, high-tech, service-worker affluence. How can Democratic presidential candidates prove their national appeal to blue-collar voters when, in New Hampshire, they first have to tailor their appeal to upscale, well-educated, latte-sipping suburban Volvo drivers?

Which brings me to the decision announced this past weekend by the Democratic National Committee to dilute New Hampshire's starting-gate status by crowding the early '08 primary calendar with early events in Nevada and South Carolina. Nevada is increasingly populated by working-class and lower-middle-class Hispanics; many are also union members, whereas unions are relatively weak in New Hampshire. As for South Carolina, a huge percentage of the likely Democratic primary electorate in that state -- perhaps 40 percent -- is African American.

New Hampshire is already squawking about this blow to its honor, and its secretary of state is now threatening to move the '08 primary date perhaps into 2007, so that it can be alone without the interlopers crowding it. (Ego is not the sole reason, of course. Money talks, too. If fewer candidate entourages and fewer journalists show up, the state's economy takes a hit. In the 2000 primary season, New Hampshire reportedly raked in $264 million from its visitors.)

What the state's promoters generally don't like to acknowledge, however, is that, aside from the demographic issues, an important myth about the New Hampshire primary has been shattered in recent elections. In the old days, it used to be said that nobody gets elected president in November without first winning New Hampshire back at the starting gate. Not true anymore. Bill Clinton finished second in the '92 Democratic primary, but won the presidency. George W. Bush finished second in the '00 GOP primary, losing by 18 percentage points, but won the presidency. Other candidates have lost the New Hampshire primary and still won their party's nomination; witness Democrats George McGovern in 1972 and Walter Mondale in 1984.

So the Democratic National Committee sought this weekend to put New Hampshire in a more realistic perspective. Whether they have done so in the most rational fashion, however, is another issue entirely. By crowding those early weeks with two extra contests -- now there will be four, including the unrepresentative Iowa caucuses -- the Democrats have merely further "front-loaded" the calendar, thereby putting even more pressure on the candidates to raise exorbitant amounts of money, this year and next, just to buy into the accelerated process, with its farflung geography. That format is a serious threat to New Hampshire's best asset: its retail politics, as exemplified by the "town hall" events where voters get to quiz the candidates in detail.

In the best of all possible worlds (to quote Candide), the parties would pick out one demographically representative state and put the first primary there. I nominate Missouri -- the classic swing state of the heartland. It's 26 percent blue collar, 11 percent black, big cities, small towns, and since 1900 it has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every single election except for one time (1956). Granted, it's population is only about two percent Hispanic....Well, no wonder the Democrats still can't figure out how to come up with the ideal calendar. Who can?